Professor of Anthropology Stephen Houston

Anthropologist Stephen Houston named 2008 MacArthur Fellow

A Brown scholar of Mayan iconography received a thrilling phone call last week: He is one of 25 recipients of this year’s MacArthur ‘genius’ grants of $500,000.
By Anne Diffily  |  September 22, 2008  |  Email to a friend

The phone at the Houston house rang during dinnertime last week. For a change, it wasn’t a pollster or a sales pitch. Rather, the head of the renowned MacArthur Foundation was on the line with good news for Brown anthropologist Stephen Houston: You are one of 25 MacArthur Fellows for 2008. “My mind went blank,” says Houston. “All I remember is babbling thanks. It’s surreal.” 

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation today formally announced its 2008 MacArthur Fellows, all chosen for their “creativity, originality, and potential to make important contributions in the future.” Each fellow will receive $500,000 in no-strings-attached support over the next five years.

Houston, the Dupee Family Professor of Social Science at Brown, is a noted scholar of Mayan archeology and iconography. In announcing his award, the MacArthur Foundation noted, “Houston’s interdisciplinary approach brings into sharper focus the poetics and preoccupations of ancient Mayan texts and illuminates the relationship between histories recorded in hieroglyphic texts and those pieced together through archaeological evidence.”

A member of the Brown faculty since  2004, Houston has worked on several major excavations of Mayan cities, most recently the ancient city of Piedras Negras in Guatemala. He studies ancient Mayan script to shed light on political and social systems in Mesoamerica. Formerly a professor at Brigham Young University, Houston holds a B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania (1980) and a Ph.D from Yale (1987). He is a co-author of the books The Memory of Bones (2006) and Royal Courts of the Ancient Maya (2001).

Did he have any inkling that he might be in the running for a “genius grant”?

“They’ve given this great honor to other Mayanists, so the chances weren’t nil,” Houston says. “But, of course, no one really deserves this kind of benefaction – one simply accepts it in a spirit of humility and gratitude. I am certainly no ‘genius’.”

The fellowships may be used for anything the recipients choose. Houston is mulling the possibilities. “This is the truly tough call,” he says. “I have to think it through carefully and decide what will make me more productive. The question beyond that is, how can I help my students and colleagues? I’m not the kind of person who's going to rush out and buy a BMW.”   

MacArthur fellowships have been awarded to 781 people since their inauguration in 1981. Candidates may not apply for the fellowships; they are nominated by fellow scholars and artists, and chosen by a 12-member anonymous selection committee.